When I applied to graduate school at the University of Toronto, I had to translate my Hebrew transcript into English. My B.A. was in Comparative Literature, but even courses like Elizabethan Drama or 19th century American Literature were taught in Hebrew. All the texts we read were translations.
My English transcript did not reveal this, of course, and I didn't tell anyone (and no one thought to ask). But all of a sudden I had to read Shakespeare and long Victorian novels in English. It was quite a shock, and my English had to improve fast. The hardest challenge was mastering the Master, and to that end I spent hours at the public library listening to records of Shakespeare's plays while following along with the texts.
I loved studying Shakespeare in this method, and even today I enjoy performances of his plays more if I get to prepare beforehand. Still, it never occurred to me that I could listen to other forms of literature in the same way. But one day, back in 1989 as I was driving and listening to the radio, I heard an installemt of the novel Promises to Keep on "The Radio Reader" (NPR). This book by George Bernau tells an engaging alternate story of how the course of history would have changed if President Kennedy had survived the shooting in Dallas. Its distinct angle is not dissimilar to Philip Roth's The Plot Aganist America written some fifteen years later.
Since then, listening to audio books has become my favorite pastime while driving. I feel they add life to the written text, and ignite the imagination. Still it seems like a slightly lazy activity to be read to, and it feels somewhat unfair to the author who worked so hard on writing their text. An actor who reads a book adds his/her own emphasis which could be different than mine. So as I regard listening to be inferior to reading, I decided on certain rules. First I only listen to books in English, second they have to be the kind which otherwise I won’t have the patience to read, like rereading the classics, and third, only unabridged novels are permitted. The latter rule resulted of being lost in an abridged version of Bleak House. Unfortunately, I still had trouble keeping up even with the unabridged version.
Unlike my technique for studying Shakespeare which combined listening and reading, it is hard to pay full attention to a novel while driving. In the case of Promises to Keep, I never got to actually see the book or read it, thus the source and the meaning of its title escaped my attention.
But today I finally had a chance to make amends. I watched a documentary about President Kennedy’s last day in Dallas and suddenly heard the line from Robert Frost 's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” which is the reference to Bernau's title: "But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep." The title was aptly chosen since President Kennedy, who admired Robert Frost and asked him to read at his inauguration in 1961, used those particular lines in his campaign to show his commitment to his promises and to serving the people.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Don't get me wrong, I adore audio books, but after today I have yet another proof that, especially in the case of a second language, they can never fully replace "real" reading.